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Assisting at Trial: The Litigation Paralegal’s Role
Lisa Sprinkle, ACP, Board Certified—Civil Trial Law, Texas Board of Legal Specialization

By being organized and having a system, a paralegal can become a valued asset at the trial of a case. Assuming that a system has been utilized to organize the paperwork the actual preparation for trial can be minimized. This article will address some of the things a paralegal should be able to do to assist the attorney during trial.

There may be times when the paralegal stays back at the office during the trial. At such times, the paralegal’s role may be to entertain witnesses, transport witnesses from the hotel or airport to the court, to continue drafting certain documents such as trial briefs, or to manage other client needs that are pending. At these times, the attorney will probably give specific instructions to the paralegal about what needs to be done in their absence.

Second Chair at Trial

If the paralegal is expected to second chair at trial, the paralegal’s duties may be quite different. The most important role for a paralegal second chairing is to assist the attorney in keeping the trial moving. This involves:

  1. pulling and handing exhibits to the attorney for each individual witness testifying;
  2. keeping detailed notes of the proceedings;
  3. anticipating the need for certain documents (pleading or discovery response that is being disputed or used for impeachment);
  4. keeping track of the introduction and admission of exhibits;
  5. lining up witnesses for each day’s testimony;
  6. having subpoenas prepared and ready;
  7. anticipating need for introduction of prepared trial briefs;
  8. helping the attorney prepare direct and cross-examinations for the witnesses;
  9. being alert to anything the attorney may forget when examining a witness and passing a note to see if it was purposely or accidently omitted;

A lot of attorneys get so wrapped up in the trial and what is coming next that they skip certain details like admission of documents, a follow-up question, objections to preserve appeal. A good trial paralegal will pick up on these matters. Through the discrete practice of passing a note, subtly, to the attorney, the paralegal can become a very valuable asset in trial. A paralegal, therefore, must be knowledgeable about the rules of procedure, evidence and the preservation of appeal.

Having second-chaired at trial numerous times, I would like to share my role during a typical trial. I have second chaired for both the defendant and the plaintiff.

  1. The weekend before trial all witnesses are contacted and the dates and times of their testimony are confirmed. Telephone numbers where the witnesses will be at all times during the trial are recorded.
  2. Court records are reviewed to ascertain any and all subpoenas served by the opposing party.
  3. Jury sheets are finalized and juror profiles are discussed.
  4. Discussions are held with the attorney about strategies for the case.
  5. Exhibits are finalized and the documents that will be taken to trial are organized.
  6. A paralegal trial notebook is prepared. A paralegal trial notebook is a mini-notebook containing a copy of the witness statements, a copy of the witness list, and a copy of the exhibit list with any and all direct and cross examinations that have been prepared and completed. This notebook will also contain the telephone numbers for all witnesses expected to be called during trial.
  7. Prepare a “first-aid kit” to include a stapler and staple remover, tape, Post-It Notes and flags (various colors), pens (various colors), highlighters, pencils, paper clips, scissors, pointer/laser light, blank file folders, cell phone, if allowed by the court – (Remember to keep the phone turned off in the courtroom) and legal books.

On the first morning of trial, the paralegal helps transport files to the courtroom. Once at the courtroom, the paralegal sets up the attorney’s table by placing appropriate files in accessible locations. The paralegal must be aware at all times of the impression being given to the jury panel and eventual jury. Being aware of facial expressions will help a paralegal control displaying emotions during trial. How the trial team sits, interacts and acts toward the client makes an impact on each individual juror. A paralegal should always be cognizant of the image being portrayed to the jury.

During voir dire, the paralegal observes and make notes and then helps the attorney with jury selection. The paralegal keeps notes during opening arguments, pulls files for witnesses expected to testify during this trial session and pulls exhibits that may be admitted during these witnesses’ testimonies. During breaks the paralegal checks the halls to make sure witnesses that will be called are present. If they are not, the paralegal must contact them.

After the first day of trial is complete, the paralegal meets with the attorney, and possibly the client, to discuss the day’s progress. There also needs to be a discussion about things needed for the next day. The paralegal may be asked to call any witnesses that are needed for the following day. The paralegal should type up notes or print up notes taken during trial that day. If the attorney needs any documents prepared for the next day or for during trial, the paralegal will need to do that work also. The paralegal may be asked to do research. Basically, just because the court has adjourned it does not mean that the paralegal is done for the day.

Each day of trial proceeds this way until trial is complete. Prior to the day on which closing arguments will be presented, the final and complete notes from the trial are provided to the attorney. Sometimes specific highlights of what the evidence has shown are prepared by the paralegal for the attorney to use in closing. Sometimes these highlights tie to the theme or strategies in the case. The paralegal’s notes taken during opening argument will also remind the attorney of what was stated in opening so that those statements can be tied to the closing.

During closing arguments the paralegal may take notes concerning the reactions of jurors to statements made during closing arguments. The case then goes to the jury. While the jury is out, the paralegal begins to reorganize the file. It is important to put the file back in the same position it was in when it was originally taken to trial. The file cannot be archived or torn apart until it is clear no appeal will be taken and judgment is final.

When the jury returns, the paralegal is often sent in to poll the jury. Sometimes the attorney also questions the jury on their reactions to certain evidence, to the attorney’s appearance or performance. Information gathered from the jury can be extremely beneficial to both the attorney and the paralegal. Jurors are often more than willing to critique your performance and comment on their perceptions of your conduct, presentation and efficiency during trial. Also, by comments from the jurors a paralegal can learn better ways to present evidence or how to act during trial.

It is clear that the role of the paralegal at trial can be extremely invaluable. Each paralegal/attorney team will develop its own approach to trial. The jury can be effected, negatively or positively, by the way in which an attorney and paralegal work together during a trial. A lot of decisions made by juries are based on their perceptions, of the paralegal, the attorney, the evidence, the client and/or the type of case they are hearing. The paralegal’s main duty during trial is to assist the attorney in efficiently presenting the case.

Lisa Sprinkle is a free-lance paralegal in El Paso, Texas. She has served on the Paralegal Division Board of Directors as Director of District 16, Parliamentarian, member of the Long Range Planning Task Force, and Division President 1999-2000. Lisa has achieved the Certified Paralegal and Certified Paralegal Litigation Specialist recognitions from the National Association of Legal Assistants. Lisa was certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in the area of paralegal - civil trial law in 1994. Lisa was a co-author of the Paralegal Ethics Handbook published by West in 2007.

Texas Paralegal Journal © Copyright 2008 by the Paralegal Division, State Bar of Texas.

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